FFP: The Social Media Minimalists
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
by Aim Sinpeng*
Picture: Screenshot of Future Forward's Facebook Page
It has barely been a year since most Thais woke up to the popularity of a brand-new party – the Future Forward Party – before it got disbanded. The FFP will live on as a political movement and will continue to maintain a healthy loyal support base. To first understand how the FFP rose to prominence, we look at a series of articles that empirically examine its dynamics.
This post is a follow-up to the article on “Campaigning without Vote Canvassers”.
With the majority of Thais today now online, we can forget how politics is done outside cyberspace. But as research continues to show, direct, face-to-face canvassing is still very effective, despite the widespread use of new media campaigning tools.
Does social media really change the way candidates mobilize votes? To examine this contentious question, we look at why some candidates were successful electorally despite doing very little online.
In our interviews of over 50 successful constituency candidates from the Future Forward Party, we found that at least one-third of these candidates described their social media engagement as “minimal” or “extremely minimal,” while nearly half of them described their social media engagement as “ineffective.” What explains why some successful candidates were largely inactive online, while others were very active online?An examination why we see variation in the social media strategies of electorally successful candidates is particularly interesting in the context of a digitally mediated political party like the FFP.
Building on the rational choice approachto candidate behaviour, I argue that if candidates are not using social media (or using very little of it) to mobilize support, it is because the benefits of using it are uncertain while there are real costs involved (ads, page boosting, staff). The benefits of using social media campaigning are shaped by the nature of the target constituents. If candidates were specifically trying to target social media active constituents – largely young, urban, and educated (or politically informed/ greater degree of political efficacy), then the benefits of using social media were great. However if the targeted constituents were among the less social media active (poorer, more suburban/rural, older), or if candidates already had personal ties to voters, then candidates relied more on traditional offline methods such as face-to-face door knocking or flyers.
In Nakhon Pathom’s first district, which included the provincial capital, Sawika Limpasuwanna – FFP’s most popularconstituency candidate on Facebook – saw social media as “the only way to communicate with my constituents in such a short time.” Because of her very urbanized constituency and her targeting of the 18-40 age group with large areas of physically inaccessible gated communities, Sawika relied primarily on her social media campaign. By contrast, Sutawan Suban na Ayuddhaya, Nakon Pathom’s candidate and MPfor district 3, was far less active online. Her district was full of large swaths of rice fields and large rural tambon(sub-districts), and was populated by less educated and more easily accessible voters.
In Chiang Rai’s first district, candidate and elected MP, Ekkapob Pianpises, relied very heavily on social media. “I have my PR marketing team that focused exclusively on social media. I focused on producing content and videos for social media.” Door-to-door knocking was only used with specific groups of constituents that he believed would not be social media active: farmers and the elderly in particular. “I don’t find offline campaigning very effective.”
On the contrary, Thanapat Kittiwongsa, elected MPof Chanthaburi’s first district, did not use much social media for mobilizing votes. “Offline campaigning is much more effective. People wanted to know if you visited them at their houses or not. They wanted to see your face. They wanted to look into your eyes while talking to you.” Thanapat credited his decade of studying people in his constituency and the networks that he built with them to his success. “People know me. I understand their dreams and grievances because I have done due diligence over the years.”
Urbanization was an important factor in shaping a candidate’s strategy, but it was not the only factor. Even in urban areas, candidates considered the nature of the targeted constituents. For Kawinnart Takee, elected MP of Cholburi’s Pattaya – a highly urbanized provincial business and tourism center – she barely used social media and instead focused her campaigning efforts on the outskirts bordering Rayong province. “Older people who live on the outer edges did not use social media much, so you need a face-to-face interaction.” As a Muslim, she also relied extensively on her offline networks with Muslim organizations in Cholburi. Similarly, Patsawee Pattaraputtakarn, Bangkok candidate for district two, focused her campaigning efforts on slum dwellers and poorer constituents and thus relied far less on social media. “Slum people didn’t care about social media. Social media for me is for people at the top but I spent most of my time on the lowest class of people.”
*Aim Sinpeng is Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney